Papis beats the curse.

Max Papis won a thrilling game of Last Man Standing to take the spoils in the CART season opener at Homestead yesterday [Sunday] from 13th on the grid.

The Italian succeeded where those before him had failed, and hung on to the lead in the closing stages to takes his first Champcar victory after coming so close at Michigan last year. Roberto Moreno finished second and Paul Tracy third.

The race was equally emotional for Papis as it followed the last race of 1999, where his great friend Greg Moore perished, and gave Team Rahal its first success since the departed Bryan Herta triumphed at Laguna Seca two years ago. Papis was only second on the road with ten laps to run, but took advantage of a slip by surprise leader Tracy to dive inside the Green car and race for the line.

''We fought all day, and always believed in our hearts that we could do it,'' he said, ''With a few laps to go, I had a little glitch in my brain that made me think about Michigan and, at one point, I lost five or six lengths in the turbulence, but Bobby [Rahal] came on the radio and told me to go for it - that's why I was able to get by Paul when he went wide.''

Tracy had climbed from a lowly 17th on the grid to be in the running for victory, but fell victim to the leaders' jinx which was in force throughout the day.

Juan Montoya was the early pace-setter, but departed when his Toyota let go on lap 22. Similarly, Kenny Brack led until an oil leak forced him out, and Gil de Ferran looked likely to add victory to his pole position before choosing exactly the wrong lap to make his final pit-stop. Rookie Alex Tagliani took over, but promptly fell foul of a blend-line violation, leaving the Team Green car out in front.

Tracy looked comfortable once ahead, despite the handling problems which had afflicted both his and team-mate Dario Franchitti's cars in practice, but eventually lost the lead in traffic. The Canadian blamed no-one but himself, admitting that his Reynard had begun to slide as he dived inside Michel Jourdain Jr, causing him to lift off. Papis was through in a flash and, such was Tracy's loss of momentum, that Moreno was able to follow the Miller Lite car into second.

''We had a seventh or eighth place car today, but we got good points and that's what we came here to do,'' said a resigned Tracy, ''I think at the end, if we hadn't had any traffic, we would have been okay, but that's the way things go.''

Understeer seemed to be the order of the day, with Papis reporting that the Rahal crew had been trying to dial it into his car all afternoon. In the end, however, he was relieved to see it on someone else's car push victory in his direction.

''We thought we had enough [understeer on the car], but we still got really loose,'' he explained, ''We worked the car around all through the race, but I still think there was room for improvement. In the end, though, we took a fourth or fifth place car to first place, and it was through fast pit-stops and the right changes to the car.''

Moreno took second on the road for his new Patrick team, having signed up to partner Adrian Fernandez after years of filling in for injured rivals. The Brazilian thanked the team for giving him the chance to ditch his 'Supersub' reputation, and for almost vaulting him past Papis at the final pit-stops.

''The Visteon guys were great,'' he revealed, ''and they almost got me past Max. But we all had problems with turbulence, and I wasn't able to make the move.''

Further down the order, Jimmy Vasser equalled Toyota's best CART finish in fourth after a steady, in unspectacular, run to the flag, bringing him in ahead of Patrick Carpentier, the unfortunate de Ferran, Christian Fittipaldi and rookie Shinji Nakano in the top eight. Fittipaldi, like team-mate Michael Andretti - who retired - was unable to translate testing promise into a race win which, on a day to feature Ford engines heavily in the top five, was something of a surprise to the Newman-Haas team.

Tagliani recovered from the back of the field in a similar manner to Player's team-mate Carpentier, who had been relegated by a pace lap puncture, and eventually took ninth on the road, ahead of day one pace-setter Tony Kanaan, Franchitti and Cristiano da Matta.

''It was a pretty long day out there,'' admitted the 1999 season up, ''The car was good on its own, but bad in traffic - that's how the leaders managed to put me a lap down. It's frustrating, but it was good to get the mileage. I felt fine - except for a small bump when the team dropped the car off the jacks and it bottomed out pretty hard.''

Second Briton Mark Blundell just missed out on a point after a trying day in his PacWest machine, but fared better than team-mate Mauricio Gugelmin, who ran out of fuel on the backstretch before recovering to 16th.

''I battled with the car from the opening laps," Blundell reported, "We finally got the car consistent towards the end when at speed, but I really battled in traffic and simply could not race with anyone. The boys gave me great stops and the Firestones and Mercedes-Benz engine were both really strong, but we just did not have the set-up underneath us to do the job. If we can get the car to handle better I think we have the ingredients to be competitive this season."

Joining Andretti in retirement was fellow race favourite Fernandez, and the perennially unlucky Helio Castro-Neves, who Penske quit on lap ten.

But this was a day for Mad Max to finally lay his ghosts to rest. That close thing in Michigan, and even his qualifying miracle here at Homestead, will no longer be subjects of conversation as CART's latest victor takes a bow.

Race Result - CART - Homestead.

1. Max Papis Team Rahal Reynard-Ford 150 laps
2. Roberto Moreno Patrick Reynard-Ford 150 laps +0.620secs
3. Paul Tracy Team Green Reynard-Honda 150 laps +3.835secs
4. Jimmy Vasser Ganassi Lola-Toyota 150 laps +4.454secs
5. Patrick Carpentier Forsythe Reynard-Ford 150 laps +4.831secs
6. Gil de Ferran Penske Reynard-Mercedes 150 laps +12.419secs
7. Christian Fittipaldi Newman-Haas Lola-Ford 150 laps +14.286secs
8. Shinji Nakano Walker Reynard-Honda 150 laps +14.856secs
9. Alex Tagliani Forsythe Reynard-Ford 150 laps +25.470secs
10. Tony Kanaan Mo Nunn Reynard-Mercedes 149 laps
11. Dario Franchitti Team Green Reynard-Honda 149 laps
12. Cristiano da Matta PPI Reynard-Toyota 149 laps

13. Mark Blundell PacWest Reynard-Mercedes 148 laps
14. Michel Jourdain Jr Bettenhausen Lola-Mercedes 147 laps
15. Norberto Fontana Della Penna Reynard-Toyota 147 laps
16. Mauricio Gugelmin PacWest Reynard-Mercedes 146 laps

17. Luiz Garcia Jr Arciero Project Reynard-Mercedes 132 laps
18. Kenny Brack Team Rahal Reynard-Ford 78 laps
19. Oriol Servia PPI Reynard-Toyota 65 laps
20. Gualter Salles Dale Coyne Lola-Ford 51 laps
21. Adrian Fernandez Patrick Reynard-Ford 49 laps
22. Michael Andretti Newman-Haas Lola-Ford 37 laps
23. Juan Montoya Ganassi Lola-Toyota 23 laps
24. Takuya Kurosawa Dale Coyne Lola-Ford 11 laps
25. Helio Castro-Neves Penske Reynard-Mercedes 9 laps

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